Beer in the Garden

As humans first started to settle down from nomadic hunter-gatherers into early agricultural societies, they took what must have been an exceedingly keen understanding of the diverse plants in their environment and applied that knowledge to the cultivation of crops. Instead of relying on the bounty provided by nature, these people began to select the most appealing and nutritious plants to work deliberately. In so doing, they actively produced brand new crops and developed an even deeper relationship with the plant world.

And here, at the very dawn of civilization, early agriculturalists took their growing understanding of plants, and perhaps a bit of serendipity, and developed something to rival agriculture itself—beer. Agriculture and brewing developed side-by-side because both required a deepening understanding of the plant world. Today, the increasingly popular hobbies of home gardening and homebrewing can bring us back to this early world thousands of years ago where an appreciation for and knowledge of the plant world translated into intoxicating, frothy, delicious brews.

This past Wednesday I was invited to give a presentation on the intersection between gardening and homebrewing at the wonderful, new(ish) Urban Chestnut bierhall in The Grove. I was invited by Gateway Greening, which runs a monthly seminar series called, appropriately, Pints ‘N’ Plants. Around fifty people came to learn and talk about the understanding of barley and hops that is required to make great beer, and the many plants we can grow right here in St. Louis to brew with.

Bread baking and brewing happened under the same 
roof in ancient Egypt. Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts
Barley of course provides the essence of beer, the sugars that yeast ferment into alcohol and carbon dioxide. But barley kernels straight from the field are full of starch, a form of sugar inaccessible to yeast. To unlock this sugar, maltsters control the germination of barley seeds, the developmental program that converts starch into sugar for the young seedlings. Instead of letting the seed continue to produce a whole new barley plant, maltsters instead dry and roast the sweet malted barley to halt the process and caramelize the sugars.

Fermented malted barley is all that is needed to make an intoxicating beverage, but it will result in a cloyingly sweet, unpalatable beer. Hops, the aromatic female flowers from the hop plant, perform the job of balancing the saccharine barley with bitter hoppiness while flavoring the beer as well. Hops took over from a diverse array of local herbs, fruits, and other plants around a thousand years ago to become the exclusive flavoring of most beer.

These earlier brews—called gruits—also relied on a strong sense of the qualities of local flora to produce drinkable beer that would not poison the drinkers. Hops likely superseded these hundreds or thousands of other plants because of their ability to protect beer from bacterial infections so well, but they also make a damn fine beer. The dozens of different varieties of hops lend distinct flavors and aromas from dry and earthy to bright and citrusy, helping to recover the diversity in flavorings lost with the gruits.

As any would-be usurper of the Busch crown will tell you, beer only requires barley, hops, yeast, and water. However, the craft beer and homebrewing renaissance has helped rediscover the variety of beer flavorings that harken back to an earlier time when all manner of local plants found their way into the brew kettle. Here, gardeners and homebrewers can join together in search of homegrown, quality ale.

Any number of bizarre plants can find their way into homebrewed beer. I covered just a handful to consider and get started in my talk, some I have experience with and some I do not. By far the easiest to grow is cilantro, the herb flavoring a lot of Mexican dishes. Instead of the leaves, however, brewers seek the bright, citrusy seeds called coriander. They have a completely different taste and are used in a very popular style of beer called Belgian witbier. This is the style of Blue Moon and is a very refreshing beer brewed with wheat, bitter orange peel, and coriander. In fact, the witbier is light on hops and calls back to the gruits that were flavored with an array of herbs and spices. Cilantro is so easy to grow it will even reseed itself from year to year, reliably producing pods of brown, crunchy seeds in the summer. Only about five tablespoons are required with an equal weight of orange peel to flavor the beer, an amount easy to acquire from just a plant or two.

I also covered how to grow and brew with pumpkin, chili peppers(!), and potted citrus plants. Perhaps the best plant to get in the ground this spring, however, is hops! A perennial, fast-growing vine, hops do well in community spaces where they can spread out and grow stronger year-over-year, or in the backyard of an enthusiastic gardener-brewer who has enough space for a sturdy trellis. Each spring, homebrew supply stores sell chunks of hop rhizomes, a root-like structure that overwinters to produce vines the next season. This vegetative means of propagation ensures that gardeners get only the female plants and clones of their favorite variety. After growing up to thirty feet high and maturing at the end of summer, the hops are ready to be tossed in the brew kettle for truly homegrown brewing.
My former community garden, Block 1035. Hops growing
on the common space trellis in the background.

To combine gardening and brewing, with an eye for creativity and variety, is truly to travel back in time to eras when most beer was brewed at home alongside the baking of bread, and when a knowledge of local plants was required for making delicious brews. For a time it seemed we had lost both of these skillsets. But now with the ongoing popularity of home and community gardening and the rapid rise in homebrewing, we all have the opportunity to capture again that intrinsic link between the growing of plants and the brewing of beer. Prost!

[I relied heavily on The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing 3rd ed. by Charlie Papazian]

New Home, New Garden

The spring garden doing wonderfully
I moved! And I presented my thesis proposal. Thus I have been absent. Struck by the all-too-common and terribly cliche bloggers absence. I expect to write more frequently, as I somehow managed to do these last few months, this summer. Exploring my new neighborhood, Tower Grove East; my new mode of transportation, biking; and everything STL has to offer when the weather is warm and the days are long.

With a new home comes a new garden! My first project over the long weekend.

But let's catch up with the spring garden. It's huge! The lettuces have already bolted, but I don't really like lettuces anyway, so they can go ahead and go to seed. But the Swiss chard is full and bushy and vibrant in its mix of yellow and burgundy. And crisp and delicious. The cilantro that volunteered from last year is doing fantastic as well. And I have peas! So many peas. I think some are supposed to be for shelling, but they're all tender enough right now to eat plain.

Future Garden
The water at the garden was AWOL for most of the spring. Fortunately we've escaped the drought that much of the country is experiencing and my plot and the others seem to have come through just fine. I packed a bag full of chard, peas, and cilantro. With some roasted farmer's market beets and some soft, creamy feta from  Jay's, I made the peas and Swiss chard into probably the best salad I've ever put together. A little oil and balsamic vinegar go nicely, but frankly are not required as the cheese adds some fat and the bright flavors of spring are plenty on their own. The roasted beets add some heft and savoriness to what could be too light of a salad. In a word: delicious. The cilantro found its way into an onion, garlic and oil base to enhance your standard rice and beans affair.

Although truly stupendous harvests like this are rare, at least in my gardening experience, this is why I do it. To nourish yourself from plants you put in as seeds...Well it's rewarding in a way few things in life are. Fortunately there's plenty more peas and chard!

And now on to the new.

My new place is just wonderful. Situated just one block from the bustling South Grand district, I'm in the Tower Grove East neighborhood right by the famous Tower Grove Park. I live in a duplex and I have a small front and back yard. Very homey. There were stumps from some trees and an older garden plot my upstairs neighbors had already claimed, so I told my landlord I'd put a garden in place of the stumps and that's just what I did.

Raise bed frame in place
The trees were surprisingly easy to dig out with a spade. Urban gardening often comes with tales of heavy metals and other pollutants in the soil, so I decided to put in a pretty tall raised bed. Honestly I'm not terribly worried, but it also seemed to match the existing raised bed. I decided on 8' x 4' and 10" tall.

It turns out that is a lot of volume to be filled! I picked up a lot of garden soil and then had to return a lot to buy some topsoil to mix in, per instructions I didn't read at first. I had to slice through the grass that remained after the stumps were gone, then put the bed itself together. Pretty easy, really. A few cuts with the circular saw and some screws, this doesn't need to be perfect.

Far too many bags of soil later, I transplanted some herbs and tomatoes and peppers from Washington University's greenhouse. I then stopped by a garden shop at Compton and Cherokee and picked up two eggplants and a cantaloupe! I've never grown fruit before. Speaking with Joe, the owner, who has missed only three days out of the last 365 at his shop, I was reminded to pick up carrot and beet seeds and onions to plant as well. Carrots and onions in particular make good fillers in between the taller plants.

The first transplants
So for now, it's done. The new soil seems pretty weed free so far, which is nice. Won't last of course. But nice for now. Once the seeds establish themselves I'll put some mulch over to help control the water a bit. I do hope I get enough sun for the tomatoes and other full sun plants. The sun is so high in the sky right now, I swear sometimes it seems there's more on the north side of the house than the south!

So here's to two gardens at once; to St. Louis in the summer; to bigger and better harvests!

March Garden Plans


Okay, so we're actually in the middle of a(nother) Winter Storm Warning. Albeit one that is, for once, quite a bit lighter than predicted.

But, nonetheless, it is March. And peeking over at my handy vegetable planting guide provided by Gateway Greening, I see lots of activity starting in March. Along with the rest of the country, I am anticipating the explosion of outdoor activities, and happiness, that the highly anticipated spring will bestow upon us. For me, that particularly means making things grow.

This year I expect I’ll have to tack a couple weeks onto the traditional planting dates because of the bitter cold. But that means that very soon, peas go in the ground. They can handle some snow and they hate the heat. With our luck, we’ll transition smoothly and quickly to some freak heat wave like we experienced two years ago. Time will tell.

Peas first. Then lettuces, and the cole crops like broccoli and cabbage. (Side note: I definitely used to think the term was “cold crops” because, you know, they liked the cold.) Beets and carrots. Radishes and turnips. I could be eating fresh salad in 45 days give or take. Just as important, I’ll be digging into fresh, if cold, soil in a couple weeks. There are few things better.

Unlike last year, I am not starting any seeds indoors. I don’t really have the room in my new apartment and I’m planning to move apartments again. The greenhouse at Washington University has traditionally had a seedling sale on Mother’s day and I am hoping to snag some vegetable seedlings there in May. With my move I may have two gardens going on simultaneously, if I am that much of a masochist. I am getting a jump on early spring planting in my current space. But I certainly hope to find another community garden or have access to a yard wherever I move to continue the warm summer crops.

Although maintaining two gardens in two different locations in the city is probably well beyond my organizational skills, it is a good opportunity to learn more about gardening more quickly than I otherwise would be able to. That is one frustrating thing about gardening, you only get one shot each year.

My other outlet will be helping the Bell Demonstration Garden on Saturdays. I started volunteering last summer and hope to do so again starting this spring. Yet another opportunity to learn from people who really know what they’re doing in the garden.

I’ll update on the garden throughout the season and I hope that documenting it will allow me to reflect on what does and does not work!

Indoor/Outdoor Gardening

Phew! This was a busy day in the garden and I've got a lot to share.

First, a belated update to Indoor Gardening. Now it's outdoors! Starting plants from seed was a resounding success. With the LED grow light setup in the laundry room, the seedlings did great. I just left the light on 24 hours a day and the plants that got the most light right under the fixtures grew quickly and strong. I was able to rotate out the strongest plants to south-facing windows and put the smaller seedlings directly under the lights to grow better.

The tomatoes in particular did really well under the lights and flourished in the window when they were repotted at about 5"-6" tall. I also had success with hot and sweet peppers, eggplant and cucumbers. My rosemary is growing very slowly, but then again I think that's just what rosemary does.

After trying to transplant some lettuces and broccoli when they were still too young, I opted instead to just sow seeds directly in the soil. My front garden became my area for all these cool-weather crops because I was far too lazy to walk over to the community garden plot to dig in the cold, wet soil. But these plants did great when sewn directly in soil and I've had my first big pile of lettuces for a delicious salad. Not surprisingly, I now have more leafy vegetables than I really want and I've tried to pawn off the lettuces to my downstairs neighbors. But it's really fulfilling to have the first harvest of the year behind me and I look forward to more the interesting vegetables of summer. I've got peas going in the front garden too which now have a couple flowers on them so they'll hopefully be producing in the near future.

We've had a pretty cool and very wet spring--the Mississippi is chronically flooding--and so even though it's several weeks past the last frost date of April 15 I haven't been brave enough to put in my warm weather crops until now. Today was a beautiful day for doing so though: warm but not hot, with some occasional cloud cover. I went over to the community plot I've rented for the summer and transplanted four tomato plants, three peppers and two eggplants while putting in some seed onions as well. Oh and a cucumber. I started the cucumber indoors although I don't think that's really necessary or even recommended. I'm not sure they survive transplanting very well, but they grow so quickly that if the transplantation doesn't work I can just sew some seeds soon.

What's really intriguing about tomatoes is that because they have evolved to vine over the ground, wherever the stem touches soil it grows new roots. So a strategy for developing a really strong tomato plant is to remove a few of the lower leaves and dig a short trench. You lay the tomato down in the trench and cover up a lot of the stem with soil, leaving just a few leaves at the top. The top will quickly orient to grow against gravity and the whole stem will turn into a new root structure that will give the aerial portions plenty of support and the ability to gather water and nutrients from a wider area. I haven't done it before, but I'm excited to see if it helps my tomatoes flourish in the summer.

Another strategy I look forward to implementing is to actively prune my tomatoes. If you've ever grown tomatoes then you know that it's so easy for them to get overgrown and even get so big they fall over. This is the problem in trying to pretend that a vine is an upright plant. But apparently an easy solution is just to prune them back, like a tree or a grapevine. Once the plant is established and tries to grow extra stems, you just pinch them off at the base. This puts more of the plant's energy into the remaining foliage and fruits to promote ripening and keep the plant from falling over under its own weight.

Hopefully my tomatoes and other warm-weather crops survive the transplanting process well enough. In truth, I should have more carefully hardened them off to survive cooler temperatures and the scorching sun. But they are so hardy right now and the weather is basically perfect that I think I'll be fine, especially as the tomatoes grow new roots.

That finished off all my indoor plants, so I've turned off the LEDs and I'll have to clean up the soggy, wet cardboard boxes that housed my plants for the last few months. I have some other plants I can start from seed--pole beans, more carrots, some herbs--but I think I'm done with the laundry room setup. It's really satisfying to finally get my plants in the ground after nurturing them for months indoors. I've only ever bought seedlings to transplant, but it seems my own plants are somehow stronger. The whole process definitely gives me a level of satisfaction I haven't known before in my gardening experience and I hope I can repeat it next year.

As a topic preview, today I hosted an outreach event at my community garden brining some plant scientists to talk about medicinal plants, domestication and GMOs. It was small, but largely successful and as always I've learned more about how to host such events in the future. That post will be up soon.

Community Garden Summit

On Saturday, I spoke with Dr. Terry Woodford-Thomas of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center at the 4th Annual Gateway Greening Community Garden Summit. This was my first opportunity to speak about science with non-scientists in a formal setting. And it went well.

When I reached out to Gateway Greening to gauge their interest in helping me with my own event aimed at bringing plant scientists and community gardeners together, I was invited to speak at the Summit. They also asked me to help them find a professor at the DDPSC to present with me. The title of the talk was "Plant Breeding and Genetics". Although Terry works on science education and outreach full time, we were not quite sure what kind of presentation to give. We knew the attendees would be well-educated but likely without any specific knowledge of the topic. We certainly didn't want to bore anyone to death.

But it's difficult to develop a presentation plan for a group of people you haven't met on a topic you're not an expert on. After all, I have only recently begun studying plants, and I have no background in plant breeding at all. What I did have to offer was a biological background and an overlapping interest in food systems and gardening. And although we knew we had to make the presentation approachable, we also suspected that the people attending our talk--when they could opt instead to attend presentations like "Organic Gardening Methods"--would likely be interested in learning something new and challenging.

We decided to briefly review a history of crop domestication and to cover the basics of plant genetics that make plants unique and interesting, like the prevalence of polyploidy in our crops. Then, in the style of Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, we would tell the stories of a handful of crop species. We would discuss how they were bred and how the genetics of these species impacted their roles in our food system.

Terry already had dozens of slides from various presentations given over the years on similar topics. This was my first opportunity to begin collecting such material for future work, so I had to start from scratch. My topics included the interesting genetics of plants and then I would cover the nightshade and brassica families. Terry covered the history of crop domestication and then the cereals--corn, wheat and rice. 

I tried to think of ways to make my part of the presentation as interesting and approachable as possible without making the fatal mistake of condescending to the audience. That was my greatest fear, because I felt it would help confirm the worst stereotypes about scientists. The ivory towers and snotty attitudes and holier-than-thou high-mindedness. Frankly, scientists are only good at their job when they are honest about all that they don't know, although there are certainly individuals who could be reminded of that occasionally.

Nonetheless, without really knowing my audience or having experience with this kind of presentation before, that was the balance I strove to achieve. I wanted to the material to be understandable but to really offer something new to the audience so they felt that their time was well spent.

We had about ten people attend our presentation. As I mentioned earlier, topics like organic gardening methods competed for the same presentation slot, so it was not altogether surprising that we had a small group. Rebecca came along to support us and to learn as well--she was taking notes and asking questions the whole time! Terry and I traded off presenting our own sections and answering questions as we went.

On the whole, I was very satisfied with the presentation. The audience was curious and engaged, although there were certainly some heavy eyelids in the crowd. (I take no offense, I have been on the other end many, many times and sometimes your eyes just won't stay open.) I could sense that the presentation was dry at times and I learned that I needed to prepare more succinct and engaging ways or presenting certain topics, like marker assisted selection and the real significance of hybrid crops versus inbred lines. I believe that our crop-focused sections were the strongest, which was really the intention and is something I believe I will repeat.

The audience asked many great questions, both to clarify our points and to ask after new information. One woman was intensely interested in the gene banks that save germplasm we brought up. Others were curious about how we propagate seedless varieties. We did not discuss genetic engineering at length, but it was brought up and the only real concern expressed from an audience member was over the potential overstepping of Monsanto's legal team.

Our host, a young man (older than me) whose name I unfortunately forget, was very excited about our presentation. At the end he and I spoke briefly and he thanked us for presenting and seemed genuinely happy to have attended. I got extended feedback from Rebecca, but she's understandably biased. On the whole, I am very happy with how the summit went and I look forward to speaking on a similar topic at the Pints 'N' Plants event in June. I think it was a great first step and I intend to take many more

Indoor Gardening

For the first time, I'm able to start seedlings indoors before transferring them to the ground for spring. I've been an avid amateur gardener for a couple years now, but last year I was making the move to St. Louis at the end of May. So when we started our garden, Rebecca and I had to largely purchase established seedlings because it was already June. And hot.

But this time around, we're planning on having even more ground space and we're hoping for a milder summer. To take advantage of this, we're starting the seeds off indoors.

What we needed most of all was lights. If you search Amazon for grow light fixtures, you'll find mostly fluorescent fixtures with light bulbs for 50 bucks or more. And even though fluorescent light bulbs are reasonably efficient, we're talking about having these things on 12 hours a day for months. Right away it was clear we wanted LED lights so we didn't run up the meter. We picked up this, a two pack of 2 Watt LEDs with a combination of red and blue diodes for good growth. Less than $30, they'll last forever and I calculated their addition to our electric bill at about 19 cents. Fortunately I found a couple cheap clamp-on light fixtures at Home Depot. The lights give out an eerie pinkish glow that frankly looks unhealthy. But it's supposed to be good for the plants. 
The only place safe from our cats is the laundry room. Fortunately it's also warm because of the furnace, so we set up the lights there. We hobbled together a collection of egg and milk cartons, produce containers and other assorted fiberboard to start the seeds in. We have some small pots laying around we can transfer the bigger seedlings to before taking them outside if needed. 

Although we had a couple seed packets leftover from last season, we had to go on a major seed hunt. Fortunately the Central West End has a fantastic nursery called Bowood Farms whose cafe is good for an exceedingly nice brunch. In fact, we spent our time on the restaurant wait list looking over our seed options.

We may have gone a little overboard. We've got two tomatoes (variety of cherry strains and a regular pole tomato); two varieties of carrots; red onions; beets; broccoli; cauliflower; sweet and hot peppers; Swiss chard, spinach and kale; green beans and snap peas; and too many herbs to count. Oops. Notably absent is a summer squash. We're going to be joining the Lee Farms CSA this summer and think we'll have plenty of zucchini, thank you very much. 

We got home and immediately got started. We've got three egg cartons and a leftover plastic planter going for now. We were already 'behind' schedule on some of the cold-weather crops like broccoli and cauliflower so those went in. We've got a whole 'flat' of onions going and then we used the taller plastic planter for beets. These will go in the ground next month. If we need more space we can probably swing the lights down and grow a bigger group on top of the dryer.

It was a wet and chilly day, but already the days are getting longer and I'm excited to harvest my first-ever spring crop in a couple months. Soon we'll get the warmer crops like tomatoes and peppers going and really take off!

I'll keep posting updates on this project. Already little hypocotyls (the embryonic stem that supports the embryonic leaves, cotyledons) are poking out and they should be turning green soon. 

Science in the Garden

What do plant biologists and community gardeners have in common?

It's not the setup for a (bad) joke. It's a question I've been asking myself a lot lately. I happen to be both a plant biologist, in training at least, and a community gardener when it's warm out. But despite the obvious intersection of an interest in plants, I'm not sure where else they overlap. That's not to say that I think the two are opposed--far from it. But I do think that plant scientists and gardeners don't think about each other a lot. I think they should.

After all, many plant biologists are, like me, gardeners. We certainly all have the requisite plant-in-the-window in our offices. Gardeners and plant scientists often have strongly overlapping priorities: developing a safe, sustainable and abundant food supply. They may approach this from different directions, but I think that's a core value that should bind these unlikely siblings together.

Yet somehow modern culture keeps us apart. Science has become increasingly specialized. My teachers have told me when they were students, a biologist could sit in on another biologist's meeting and keep up. Now that some of the "easy" discoveries are behind us, the new frontier requires deeper, highly specialized knowledge. Sometimes communicating with other biologists about our work can be hard, let alone the general science community. Let alone the public. And because it's hard, and doesn't tend to bring in grant money, communicating our goals and discoveries to the public is put on the back burner. 

Maybe then it's no surprise that one of plant science's largest contributions to modern life--genetically modified foods--is seen as arcane, suspect, even dangerous. Steven Mayfield, who just visited Washington University to talk about using algae in industry, including biofuel, sat with graduate students for lunch. The way he puts it: it's our fault. Scientists' fault. He points out--accurately, I think--that many scientists naively believe that if their work is good enough, right enough, it will diffuse down into the wider culture. It will become known, accepted and lauded. Obviously that's not the case.

Just look at the science behind climate change. For decades now, the scientific consensus has been converging on a clear answer: a human-induced greenhouse effect is warming the planet. And to punctuate that, 2012 was the warmest year ever in the U.S. It was an active campaign by those who stand to lose when we regulate carbon that led to doubt. 

We need to make this a priority. Yet I know many scientists doubt the public's interest or ability to understand their work. They blame journalists for bad stories, the Media for sensationalism and a culture of anti-intellectualism for tarnishing the reputation of Science with a capital 'S'. But the response to this is not to hide in a shell or retreat. The only solution is stronger advocacy for our work, for scientific literacy and for great public education.

I've been pondering all of this because in a couple weeks I will be speaking at the St. Louis Community Garden Summit hosted by Gateway Greening. I'll be giving a presentation about plant breeding and genetics. Fortunately I'll have some help from a professor at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. (Fun fact: according to the DDPSC website, St. Louis is home to the highest concentration of plant biology Ph.D.s in the world. That's thanks to them, WashU and Monsanto). 

I am still working on what to cover. The crazy genomes of plants for sure. How technology can improve conventional breeding. And of course, GMOs. I have been asked to make the presentation purely educational, and not to take a side on any controversial issues. I'll do my best to the respect that. I'm honored to be invited to speak at all.

But GMOs are an important topic. And I don't think the he-said/she-said approach to controversial issues is always valid. On the issue of the health of GMOs--in my experience the main concern of skeptics--there is a very real consensus: Genetically modified foods are completely safe to eat. We've been eating them for decades and they are intensively studied and highly regulated.

I think many factors have contributed to the widespread distrust of this technology. Ad hominem attacks against Monsanto (who might be reigning in the legal team a bit). A bad job of explaining the technology. And I think most importantly: a false dichotomy between natural and artificial.  I think many skeptics feel that the 'soul' of a food is changed more by inserting a single gene artificially than by manipulating hundreds of genes naturally. 

To circle this back to the beginning: I think community gardeners and plant biologists can only gain by coming closer together. Yes, many community gardeners will be skeptical of plant genetic engineering. But with their interest in plants and a strong food supply, they could very well be great advocates for the technology if they were persuaded by its benefits. And yes, plant biologists, like all scientists, can appear lofty and unable to speak in layman's terms. But only by practicing these skills in a supportive and interested environment can they improve.

I have plans for future efforts to bring these groups closer together and I will continue to ask: What do community gardeners and plant biologists have in common? A lot more than they think.